Pupils invest in themselves

Stocks: A program for middle-schoolers uses Wall Street to get kids to focus on the real bottom line.


April 28, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Jack Emery was chosen to participate in the Stocks in the Future program at Bonnie Branch Middle School last year, he knew very little about stocks.

What a difference seven months have made.

Jack, 12, now talks about stocks and business like a young Warren Buffett, the billionaire investment specialist and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

"I know that stocks are pieces of paper that say you own a company," Jack said. The experience has inspired the youth, who has already embarked on a business career.

"I've shoveled driveways, sold lemonade, and my friend and I plan to start a lawn-mowing business," he said.

Jack is among 10 sixth-graders at Bonnie Branch who are participating in the stocks program, which teaches pupils about the stock market, helps them analyze companies and how they are financed and strives to improve their economic literacy.

The program began last year after the Bernstein Family Foundation, based in Brooklandville, formed a partnership with the Johns Hopkins University to motivate pupils who are underperforming in areas such as math and reading.

"You give a child a fish, you feed him for a day. You teach a child how to fish, you feed him for life," said Pat Bernstein, the program's founder and director.

"We saw a linkage of giving these kids the advantage of knowledge to carry for life, using the financial instruments as the stimulation, so that they improve their own behavior," said Bernstein, who served as press secretary to William Donald Schaefer when Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore.

The foundation, along with support from the now-defunct CAM Corp. -- a nonprofit also run by Bernstein that organized the annual Cycle Across Maryland -- funded the program's development, including the writing of the curriculum, acquisition of supplies, teacher training and the purchase of stock.

About 210 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in eight Maryland schools participate in the program.

The program is seeking additional funds for expansion because it has proved its effectiveness, said Bernstein.

"Last year overall, Stocks in the Future students came to school almost a week more than other comparable students," she said. "This year, the students in the seventh grade showed an even greater tendency to come to school."

During their stock lessons, the schoolchildren earn money for perfect attendance and improving their math and English grades. A total of $80 per student can be earned annually through the program. The money is invested in companies that were preselected according to a survey of middle school pupils.

The portfolio includes Coca-Cola Co., Sony Corp., Time Warner Inc., Toys "R" Us Inc. and Walt Disney Co. The stocks are redeemable when the children turn 18 and graduate from high school. The pupils also track their companies through online activities such as stock research and recording updates on personalized Web pages.

Tanya Johnson, a reading teacher who runs Stocks in the Future at Bonnie Branch, said her pupils are elated to be participating in the program.

"They are very excited about the process," she said. "They are learning about the reasons why people buy and sell their stocks, trends in the stock market and news events that affect the stock market."

That news has included the conviction of domestic maven Martha Stewart for lying to federal investigators about her shares of ImClone Systems Inc. stock.

For those who didn't have a clue about the stock market, they realize it's "now an option for them," said Johnson.

Stock purchases are not done hastily, said Johnson.

"Before they purchase, they have to fill out a questionnaire and ask what are the price trends, profit margins and available cash flow related to the company's debt," she said.

So what are the hot stock picks at Bonnie Branch?

Jack, who has earned about $50, said he is looking at Sony because he likes electronics.

Megan Shanklin, 11, might go with Disney because she has been to its theme parks.

Bonnie Branch Principal Kathryn McKinley said the stocks program is vital because it gives "children a picture of the real world."

Johnson said that woven into the financial lessons is the greatest lesson of all: "They are learning that they are investing in their future by coming to school every day."

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